Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter


Leading by example is what Common wisdom about leadership favours, therefore you shouldn’t think a lot about the way your team is interpreting what you say. Though the truth is, the phrases or the words you use might give a real impact on your team’s productivity and it’s morale.

The CEO of Just Works, an HR, benefits and payroll platform, Isaac Oates said “Words are important,” said Isaac Oates, CEO of JustWorks. “It’s through our words that we communicate our intentions. They are the main tools that we have for sharing our vision with our teams.”

Vip Sandhir, founder and CEO of employee engagement platform Highground said, “This is especially true when you’re discussing an employee’s performance and engagements. Leaders’ conversations about performance can have the biggest impression on their team members.

Sandhir said, “Performance management is going through a renaissance. The importance of that conversation and how it’s done [is changing]. It was typically one-sided, judging individuals based on numbers. But neuroscience research on how the brain reacts to conversations shows that [this type of conversation] can trigger a threat response.”

He continued by giving an example, he said, “Imagine that you start a performance discussion by telling them they are a 3 or 4 out of 5, or threatening the employee’s status at the company, that person will perceive it as unfair and judgmental.” “The conversation will then be steered in that direction,” he added. Instead, you should frame these conversations to focus on the employee and his or her career goals, to show that you want to work together to help that person improve, Sandhir said.

Making the most of your communication

All the employees are different and hence they respond best to different kinds of motivational language. Stacey Philpot, a principal at Deloitte consulting, said You Should necessarily plan your words and phrases so as to ensure that you connect with your employees in a meaningful way.

Philpot said, “The most impactful leaders are the ones who think about how they will energize their people. They know what makes their people feel confident and likewise what drains their energy. Rather than talking about plans or tactical objectives, they are able to link their employees’ current circumstances with some kind of opportunity or outcome that they will care about.”

Oates, who has a military background, noted that straightforward, action-oriented phrases that relate to your company’s core values can be very motivational if you have a strong company culture.

“Some of our core company values are ‘grit’ and ‘simplicity,’ [so] I use phrases without a lot of fluff to motivate team members — phrases like, ‘Let’s do this!’, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing’ and ‘We are laser-focused on XYZ,'” Oates said.

But there’s no single “magic phrase” that will always inspire your team to achieve its best; motivational leadership comes from an authentic emotional connection with your team, said James Rohrbach, CEO of language school Fluent city.

“Look your colleagues in the eye [and] ask them how they are,” Rohrbach said. “Really listen to the answers, and tell them regularly what you are grateful for in their work and why.”

To this end, it’s helpful to include employees in the ongoing conversation about the company’s mission, and how their work aligns with it, said Shaun Ritchie, CEO of EventBoard, a provider of meeting tools and workforce analytics.

“Check in on progress through a regularly scheduled, preferably face-to-face meeting, to align on progress and build trust,” Ritchie said. “If you’re doing that at appropriate intervals, you’ll have the confidence that the right things are being worked on, that issues are addressed before they become problems, [that] your team is held accountable and that you have the information you need to make decisions. Using encouraging but knowledgeable language helps to implement objectives and key results at all levels in our organization.”

Learning the language of leadership

Even when you somehow manage a global team with various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it’s still important to master the “language of leadership,” said executive vice president at Harvard Business Publishing, Ray Carvey.

“We’re connected by so many shared human experiences that enable us to live, grow and interact in universal ways,” Carvey said.

“Whatever our industry, whatever our country [or] language, we all have to deal with the same business basics in order to run our companies successfully. It’s these common business situations and concerns that unite and move us forward.”

Despite these commonalities, it is still necessary to know cultural variations that might impact the way your words are interpreted.